When Mitchell Paige was a young boy, he watched Marines proudly march in a parade. From that moment on, he knew he wanted to join the Corps. On his 18th birthday, the motivated young man walked 200 miles from his home in Pennsylvania to Baltimore and enlisted.
After completing his training, Paige quickly rose up in the ranks, eventually earning command over his own platoon. Soon after, he was sent to join other troops in the ground invasion of the Island of Guadalcanal. The island housed a critical airfield — one within striking distance of Australia and New Zealand, making it extremely dangerous in enemy hands.
Paige was sent in to protect another infantry company with his deadly squad of machine-gunners, but the fight would soon take an unexpected turn.
As Paige’s Marines settled into position, rain poured down. He ordered his men to remain as silent as possible. The mission was to hold the line at all costs — or risk losing control of the crucial airfield.
Then, the enemy swarmed in, engaging the Marines with everything they had. As his men fell injured, Paige ran back and forth firing his men’s weapons, making the Japanese think there were still plenty of American troops left in the fight.
As Paige continued to fire the machine guns, he was discovered by an enemy troop. That troop aimed directly at Paige and fired. The platoon sergeant leaned back and somehow dodged the incoming rounds. The hot bullets whizzed through the tiny, open space between Paige’s neck and chin, miraculously causing zero damage.
Paige returned fire, taking the enemy soldier out just as quickly as he had appeared.
Still, the Japanese troops severely outnumbered the American Marines. Paige loaded himself up with ammo and charged the enemy while holding his .30 caliber machine gun at his hip. He shot at every Japanese troop that entered his field of vision.
They dropped like flies.
Suddenly, his surroundings fell still — completely silent. Paige turned his head and saw two Marine riflemen headed his way, celebrating. Reportedly, 33 Marines fought off more than 2,000 Japanese troops during the intense skirmish.
On May 21, 1943, Mitchell Paige was awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroic deeds.
Every student of history knows that the British won the Battle of Britain in August and September of 1940, and that the Spitfire played a key role. But why was that the case?
The answer is stunningly ironic, and it requires us to look at what both the Spitfire and the Bf 109 were supposed to do.
(Yes, I said Bf 109. Believe it or not, calling Willy Messerschmidt’s signature design a Me 109 isn’t accurate. Messerschmidt worked for the Bavarian Aircraft Works, or Bayerische Flugzeugwerke. Now, Messerschmidt bought the company in 1938, but planes designed before the purchase, like the Bf 109, kept the old designation.)
So, with that out of the way, let’s look at the Bf 109 and Spitfire.
Both planes were really designed to fulfill the same mission profile: that of a short-range interceptor.
The Spitfire Mk VB had a top speed of 370 miles per hour, could climb 2,600 feet per minute, and had a combat radius of 470 miles. The Bf 109G had a top speed of 398 miles per hour, a range of 621 miles with a drop tank, and could climb 3,345 feet per minute.
In 1940, the Germans needed a plane to escort their bombers, and the Bf 109 was their only option. They tried the Bf 110, a twin-engine plane with long range and heavy firepower. The problem was, the Bf 110 was easily killed by the more maneuverable Spitfires, so the Bf 109 found itself pressed into service.
But even with a drop tank, the Bf 109 just didn’t have the endurance to be a good bomber escort.
The Spitfire was also plagued with short endurance, but during the Battle of Britain — and even over Dunkirk earlier in the summer of 1940 — it was fulfilling its role as a short-range interceptor.
In essence, it was doing what it was designed to do. The Bf 109 was also a short-range interceptor…but it was pressed into service as a bomber escort, and it just couldn’t hack it.
When the United States entered the war, one thing they were truly successful at was coming up with the perfect escort fighter, the P-51 Mustang. You could say they had learned from Nazi Germany’s mistake.
Rubber, sheep skin, love sock, penis sheath, raincoat, scum bag, prophylactic, the goalie, nodding sock, the Royal wanker, MOPP gear, or, if you’re feeling vanilla, just plain ol’ “condom.”
No matter what you call it, condoms are great for conducting amphibious landings when you don’t want to exchange fluids with the host country. But they’re also good for a host of other things, as numerous enterprising service members have discovered over the years.
Make love, make war, but, for god’s sake, make lots of condoms first. So, just what sorts of things did grandpa use his jimmies for besides the horizontal tango?
There are likely thousands of condoms in this photo even though almost no one in it would get laid for a week or more.
One of the best-known uses of condoms in combat came during D-Day where many infantrymen put them on their weapons’ barrels to keep the bore clear. While water is typically cited as the main intruder that soldiers wanted to deny, War on the Rocks has rightly pointed out that many weapons in World War II could actually fire just fine while wet.
But condoms, in addition to keeping out some of the moisture, also kept out most of the mud or wet sand that could get jammed in the barrel. And while water can cause a round to move to slowly through the barrel, causing the sustained pressure buildup to damage the barrel, wet sand or mud is nearly guaranteed to cause the barrel to burst.
Members of a naval combat demolition unit hit the beach during training.
(U.S. Department of Defense)
The Navy’s underwater demolition teams, meanwhile, reportedly used condoms to protect the fuses of their underwater explosives. Most of the fuses proved to be water resistant instead of waterproof, so they had to be kept dry until just before the big show. The commandos kept the sensitive little bombs in condoms until it was time to slide them into their holes. Then, remove the love glove and initiate the fireworks.
But, the condom’s debut as a tool for the D-Day landings actually came before the real operation. Gunners training for the big day are thought to have filled condoms with helium to make field-expedient targets for firing practice.
But it’s not all history — U.S. grunts and friendly forces have their own modern uses for condoms, too. For instance, a condom makes a great waterproof pouch, though you have to tie and untie it to retrieve items while maintaining a proper seal. Condoms are especially good in this role since they’re so elastic. They can expand to be large enough to cover nearly anything a soldier is carrying, though, again, you still have to be able to tie it for perfect effectiveness.
Stretch your condoms out first, ladies and gentleman. This is not enough water to keep you going.
(ClaudiaM1FLERéunion CC BY-SA 3.0)
In fact, if the condom is properly stretched and then placed into a fabric sleeve, like a sock, it can be used to hold additional water. Non-lubricated condoms are surprisingly strong and elastic, but they need a good fabric layer to protect against pinpricks which would cause them to burst. And, they need to be stretched first. Why? Because there’s no real water pressure in most survival situations, so the condom can only hold as much water as its current shape will allow.
So, yes. Bring condoms, whether you’re there to fight or fornicate. But, if you’re there to fight, opt for the non-lubricated, non-flavored ones.
The explosion was sudden, violent, deafening, so intense that 8,500 tons of steel lifted out of the water and crashed back down. The very metal of the ship shimmered and rippled in front of their eyes, remembered survivors. The force of it threw retired Master Chief Sonar Technician Paul Abney out of his chair and sent a shipmate flying over his head. Then, everything went black.
At first, Abney thought the noise came from simultaneous explosions in a movie he was watching in the chiefs mess. Others thought there had been a kitchen explosion. The ship was also taking on some 200,000 gallons of fuel, and most Sailors assumed something had gone horribly, fatally wrong.
But the explosion had been on the port side of the ship, the opposite side of the fuel tank. It wasn’t just an explosion. It wasn’t an accident. It was an attack. It was terrorism, and a gaping 40-by-60-foot hole had been ripped into USS Cole (DDG 67), sending her listing by about 15 degrees.
When the ship had arrived in Aden, Yemen, that morning, Thursday, Oct. 12, 2000, something felt off. (Some Sailors had gut feelings of doom for much of the cruise.) The port itself was eerie, with rusting, hulking wrecks of Iraqi tankers abandoned almost a decade before, following Desert Storm. A small civilian craft lay on its starboard side, half submerged.
“I didn’t have good feelings when we pulled into Aden,” retired Master Chief Hospital Corpsman James Parlier, the ship’s command master chief, explained. “Those things started sending up red flags, not so much I expected an attack, but things didn’t seem right. You can just be more on guard, but we were given an order to go in on Force Protection Bravo. … Even if we were at a higher force protection, there’s no way we would have found the explosives in that boat alongside the ship.”
The crew had undergone anti-terrorist force protection training only days prior, but it hadn’t focused on waterborne attacks, or the dangers lurking in Yemen specifically. And, as Abney pointed out, under existing rules of engagement, Sailors couldn’t fire on anyone before being attacked. “In this case, the attack was a huge blast.”
The Yemeni pilot who directed the Cole to a concrete pier seemed jumpy and anxious to get off the ship, recalled Abney and Parlier. He insisted that the ship pull straight in, her bow pointed toward the port. The Cole’s captain, by contrast, wanted the bow facing out to sea so they could leave quickly. The captain prevailed, but then tugboats meant to guide the destroyer rushed in so quickly that gunners’ mates had to point their rifles and tell them to back off.
A small boat then pulled up alongside the ship. Abney photographed the seemingly ubiquitous garbage barge, but there was no way to know the destruction it would wreak at 11:18 a.m.
“It was a deafening sound,” said Abney. “But I recall more just feeling it than hearing it. The pressure of it knocked me back in my chair. Along with it, all the lights went out. The next thing I can recall from the blast is just this putrid, kind of acrid smoke. It was very hard to breathe.”
Even getting down to the ground didn’t help, he continued. When he felt his way to where the door should have been, it was blocked. The galley exit was obstructed as well. Along with several injured, dead and dying chiefs, Abney was trapped. He and a shipmate began banging on the bulkhead, hoping, praying someone would hear them before they all suffocated from the smoke.
“I had a crew member grab me by the right arm in a death grip and said, ‘Master Chief, you’ve got to help me. I’m dying,'” remembered Abney. “I ended up stepping on one of the other crew members. … It was pitch black and it was basically feeling my way around.”
After one of the Sailors cut into the mess and freed the chiefs, Abney went looking for help for his shipmates. He was stunned at the destruction he found throughout the ship. “The deck came up and was pushed all the way into the bulkhead. … There were people that were crushed up against this bulkhead.
“There were people that were still trapped in the machinery, caught in various different things. … There were two shipmates that were triaged and were laying in the (passageway). One, I think was already deceased and the second was struggling for breath and later did not make it. … Just to see this crew member struggling for breath and the amount of trauma that it took to put his eye out of socket, it really hit me then that we were in bad shape.”
Parlier was hard at work triaging the patients. He had missed the blast’s epicenter by minutes. Had he been in his office, instead of in a meeting, he would most likely have been killed instantly. With the electricity out on most of the ship, and the phones dead, Parlier wasn’t initially sure if the Cole’s regular doc was alive. He quickly provided some battlefield training to crew members on how to move the wounded – there weren’t enough accessible stretchers – and how to provide some rudimentary medical care. There were a lot of shrapnel wounds, broken bones, blast injuries.
One 19-year-old Sailor, Parlier remembered, “was in horrific condition. The crew didn’t know what to do with him. We put him on a door, basically, and put him back out aft. We took him out on the fantail on the flight deck. … I tried to do CPR on him, but he was … in really, really bad shape. He was the first guy I’ve ever lost in my life, and I had to make a call because we had over 25 casualties on the fantail and flight deck alone, people screaming.” Ultimately, 17 Sailors died. Most were in the chiefs mess with Abney or in the galley, lined up for chow.
With the assistance of the U.S. ambassador and some local authorities, corpsmen managed to evacuate the seriously wounded to a Yemeni hospital within that critical first hour. Able-bodied Sailors accompanied them as walking blood banks and body guards. American doctors in country on a mission trip also rushed to the hospital, which Parlier said was crucial in saving lives. From there, wounded Sailors were life-flighted to Navy hospitals in Djibouti and Sigonella, Italy, before receiving more complex treatment at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.
Many of the deceased Sailors remained on the ship, however, inaccessible and officially classified as missing. (The Navy would continue recovering remains for years following the attack.) In temperatures that climbed well above 100 degrees, their bodies quickly decayed, making the situation unbearable for the Sailors left aboard the ship. The stench, exacerbated by rotting food, was choking, while flies swarmed the ship. Still worse was knowing that shipmates and good friends – in one case a fiance – lay trapped below and no one could do anything.
It’s not like being on a carrier. When you’re on a small boy, you know almost everybody on the ship. … These crew members were like your kids. It was pretty devastating. … It would be like someone bombing your home. You worked with these kids every day. The Navy environment isn’t like any other work environment. … You’re eating three meals a day with these folks. … Twenty four hours a day, you’re running across the same people, and you kind of get to know their different quirks and personalities and what makes them tick.” – STCM Paul Abney
In those first terrible days after the attack, as they fought to keep the Cole afloat, shutting down sections of the ship, jerry rigging pumps, forming bucket brigades, survivors didn’t have latrines, showers, drinking water, hot food or even MREs. Although the embassy arranged food delivery from an Aden hotel, many of the Sailors, including Parlier, didn’t trust it. They made do with snacks and sodas until help arrived.
That help first came from the British Royal Navy frigate HMS Marlborough (F233), which arrived the next day, bearing potable water, followed over the next few days by USS Donald Cook (DDG 75), USS Haws (FFG 53) and other ships as part of Operation Determined Response.
“There wasn’t a dry eye,” remembered Parlier of that first glimpse of an American flag. “There were tears in Sailors’ eyes because we knew our shipmates had come to help us.” The best part? Chefs on the Haws cooked up a big batch of chili mac for Cole Sailors. “We had our first hot meal in days and, man, that chili mac, it just raised the spirits of the crew.”
As the U.S. assets poured into Aden – the ships, Marines to guard the ship, SEALs, divers, recovery teams for the remains, engineers, investigators – each asset provided a layer of protection and security for the Cole crew. They had been alone in a hostile country, their major weapons systems disabled. It had been impossible to know who to trust. For example, at one point, as the Yemeni army set up a large perimeter around the wounded ship, its guns were actually pointed at the wounded destroyer.
“You felt pretty darn vulnerable,” Parlier said. “You didn’t know what was going to happen next. … At one point, we were low crawling because there were inbound boats. We didn’t know if they were armed or not. The .50 caliber accidentally went off. You’re on pins and needles. … We always thought there was another attack coming.”
“It was sad” to leave his ship behind, said Parlier, who was evacuated to Norfolk, Virginia, via Oman and Germany with the rest of the crew. “I was proud of her. … I was saddened. I would have never thought in my life that I would have to go through something like that.”
At the time, the Navy wasn’t sure the Cole, transported to Pascagoula, Mississippi, via the heavy lift ship MV Blue Marlin, could be salvaged. Officials argued that there were better uses of money, but the crew disagreed. They thought decommissioning it would send a terrible message to the enemy.
Today, Parlier is thrilled that the Cole is back, stronger than ever, still defending the nation. “She needed to be put back in the water to show [the terrorists] that we weren’t going to be defeated and we were going to stand steadfast as Americans.”
A memorial on board honors the fallen Sailors, but, Parlier added, “she’s not a museum. She’s an American warship and she’s out there just like other destroyers, serving and doing their job, doing what they’re trained to do so I can be safe at home.”
Editor’s note: Read about how Cole crewmembers used their training to save their ship and learn more about Abney and Parlier by clicking here.
When William “Wild Bill” Donovan created the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, he was looking to create a truly unique intelligence outfit whose ranks included the least suspicious group of spies, saboteurs, and strongmen who were willing to infiltrate enemy countries and gather intelligence for the Allied cause. This precursor to the modern-day Central Intelligence Agency included a number of famous agents.
Actor John Wayne visiting troops in Brisbane, Australia.
For such a military supporter to not have served in the military seems strange – and it seemed strange to him too. As a matter of fact, his service (or lack thereof) during World War II seemed to follow the actor for the rest of his life. But when he died, a certificate was found among his personal papers, from William Donovan, commander of the OSS, thanking him for his service to the office. All the Duke ever divulged about WWII service was gathering information while on a trip to Brisbane to entertain American troops, but ever since his death rumors swirled about what exactly his roles could have been. Only two people knew for sure – Wayne and Donovan.
Moe Berg was possibly one of the most brilliant Americans who ever lived. And his service to the OSS was invaluable. Berg personally jumped into occupied Norway to help take down a Nazi heavy water plant in an attempt to keep the Third Reich from its nuclear ambitions. But Berg’s most valuable service was capturing film of important Japanese military targets while on a goodwill baseball trip before the war. A film he happily provided American authorities.
Before the United States entered World War II, Marlene Dietrich was way ahead of the game in hating on Hitler. After helping Jews escape persecution with her Hollywood salary, she renounced her German citizenship. During the war, she made so many trips to the front to entertain the troops, it was said she’d seen more action than General Eisenhower. The OSS recruited Dietrich to record propaganda songs in German to demoralize the enemy.
Before she began serving up French cuisine, TV Chef Julia Child was serving up French freedom with the OSS. She began her career working directly for Donovan, writing the names of agents on index cards. She later helped develop shark repellant for the OSS to keep sharks from detonating sabotage charges intended for German u-boats. Child also worked as the head of the OOS registry in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) memorizing every message that passed through her office.
The Of Mice and Men author and World War II correspondent was one of the earliest recruits for the Office of Strategic Services. In 1942, Steinbeck penned The Moon Is Down as an epic piece of pro-Norwegian propaganda that was translated into Danish and distributed by the Danish Resistance.
The MiG-15 was the jet fighter that shook the West out of its delusion of automatic air superiority. Before the MiG-15, B-29 bombers could raid North Korean cities at will — in broad daylight. After the introduction of the MiG-15, the bomber fleet was grounded because the Air Force’s F-80 Shooting Stars were too slow to protect them.
It might be hard to believe, but the source of the Russians’ new fighter’s monstrous speed was a Rolls-Royce design, which was pretty much supplied by the British themselves.
It wasn’t very often that anyone pulled the wool over the eyes of the British during the Cold War. The Soviets were a clever bunch, though.
In 1946, the Soviets were invited to a Rolls-Royce factory. The delegation in attendance included Artem Mikoyan (the man who put the ‘Mi’ in ‘MiG’) himself. Mikoyan was then invited to visit the house of a Rolls-Royce executive, where they played billiards.
Artem Mikoyan was great at billiards. In fact, he may have used a textbook shark move, losing the first game and then raising the stakes on the second. Here’s the bet he made: If the Russian wins, Rolls-Royce will have to sell jet engines to the Soviets. Find out who won at around 9:00 in the video below.
If it sounds surprising that the deal was made over a bet or that the British would supply the Russians with Rolls-Royce engines, you’re not alone. Stalin himself was incredulous, reportedly saying, “what idiot would sell us their jet engines?”
The Russians agreed to use the acquired engines for non-military purposes exclusively, which they did… until they were able to make a Russian copy of the Rolls-Royce engines, then called the Klimov RD-45. The engine was fitted into the MiG-15 and was fully operational in time for the Korean War, taking to the skies with weaponry designed to take down B-29 Superfortress bombers.
A B-29 Bomber in the gunsights of a MiG-15.
It was the dominant fighter over Korea until the introduction of the American F-86 Sabre. The Sabre was more than a match for the new MiG, garnering a 10-to-1 combat victory ratio in the war. It was also the plane flown by all 39 United Nations fighter aces.
Sabres and MiG-15s would be at each other’s throats for the duration of the Korean War. The last Sabre was retired from the U.S. military in 1956 whereas the MiG-15 saw service around the world throughout the 1960s. In fact, the plane is still flying with the North Korean People’s Air Force to this day.
The average US citizen may hear the names of US Navy aircraft carriers, battleships, and destroyers, and not realize the significance behind those namesakes. For the US Navy sailors who work and live aboard these ships, the names serve as their identity in homage to the war heroes, pioneers, and traditions of the past.
The names of Navy destroyers are of deceased members of the Navy, Marine Corps, or Coast Guard. On Nov. 13, 1944, the Navy named a warship after a woman for the first time in the Navy’s existence. The USS Higbee commissioned and was converted into a radar picket destroyer. The “Leaping Lenah,” as she was referred to by her crew, “screened carriers as their planes launched heavy air attacks against the Japanese mainland” and helped support occupying forces in the clearing of minefields during World War II. She also earned seven battle stars in the Korean War and was the first warship to be bombed in the Vietnam War.
When the Leaping Lenah was decommissioned in 1979, she held the record for the highest score for naval gunfire support of any warship in the US Navy. It was a remarkable achievement and the ultimate tribute to Lenah H. Sutcliffe Higbee — the first living female recipient of the Navy Cross.
Higbee was born in Canada in 1874 and trained as a nurse at the New York Postgraduate Hospital in 1899. She developed her knowledge of medicine at Fordham Hospital and held her own private practice as a surgical nurse until she entered the newly established US Navy Nursing Corps (NNC) in 1908. Higbee was an original member of the “Sacred Twenty” — the first group of female nurses to serve in the NNC.
“Nurses were assigned to duty at the Naval Hospital, Washington, D.C.,” said Beatrice Bowman, one of the Sacred Twenty nurses who later became the third superintendent of the NNC in 1922. “There were no quarters for them but they were given an allowance for quarters and subsistence. They rented a house and ran their own mess. These pioneers were no more welcome to most of the personnel of the Navy than women are when invading what a man calls his domain.”
The Sacred Twenty spearheaded the efforts to prove women had a role in the medical field as much as their male counterparts. They held no rank and were not immediately viewed as assets; however, their reputation would soon change. In 1911, after the first NNC superintendent resigned — as the nurses were often exposed to institutionalized discrimination — Chief Nurse Higbee assumed command as superintendent. She was responsible for overseeing 86 nurses across the US, Guam, and the Philippines. She lobbied for equal pay and for healthcare for military dependents.
Higbee served on several executive healthcare committees, including the National Committee of the Red Cross Nursing Service, and between 1915 and 1917 helped increase nursing recruiting numbers for World War I.
“For two years prior to our actual entering into this conflict, warnings had been sounded and such tentative preparations as were possible had been made by those who were wise to the significance of war signs,” Higbee said.
During her tenure of 14 years of service, Higbee helped expand the NNC from 160 nurses to 1,386 nurses. She was later instrumental in assigning nurses aboard Navy transport ships, and during World War I these nurses served transport duty. Another one of her initiatives was to build a force of hospital corpsmen that assisted in “nursing training methods” as well as to “develop in the hearts and minds of these ‘pupil nurses’ the principles of conscience care of the sick.”
After being exposed to the horrors from World War I, the complexities of battlefield wounds, and shell shock, Superintendent Higbee managed the development of Vassar Training Camp, the finishing school where nurses gained operational experience before arriving at their first assignments.
The following year, in 1918, the Spanish flu pandemic rocked the world — and as Higbee and her nursing corps did best, they adapted to the evolving demands of medicine. Their focus shifted from the war wounds to an invisible disease. A total of 431 US Navy personnel had lost their lives during World War I, and 819 more were wounded. The humanitarian crisis between 1918 and 1919, in contrast, saw 5,027 sailors die as a result of the pandemic.
“‘The most needed woman’ is the war nurse,’” wrote The Sun newspaper on June 9, 1918. “In reality the war nurse is a soldier, fighting pain, disease and death with weapons of science and skill. […] She goes prepared to share the risks and fortune of war, ready to make any sacrifice.”
Higbee and her team worked early mornings and late nights to diagnose patients and aid in their recovery. In 1920, Higbee became the first living recipient of the Navy Cross for “distinguished service in the line of her profession and unusual and conspicuous devotion to duty as superintendent of the Navy Nurse Corps.”
Three other nurses, Marie Louise Hidell, Lillian M. Murphy, and Edna E. Place, were awarded the Navy Cross medal posthumously.
Higbee passed away in 1941, and a year later the Navy granted nurses “relative rank.” In 1944, the Navy finally approved nurses for “full military rank” with equal pay.
Although the USS Higbee was decommissioned in 1979, in 2016 then-Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, announced plans to commission the USS Lenah H. Sutcliffe Higbee, scheduled for 2024 — an honor the trailblazing nurse certainly deserves.
Featured Image: Green Beret in Vietnam (not Gaspard); Photos: SF Association Chapter XXI.
‘A Warrior’s Warrior’ in MACV-SOG
During America’s long war in Vietnam, many of the Green Berets who fought there became legends within the Special Forces Regiment. And among those warriors were the men of MACVSOG (Military Assistance Command Vietnam, Studies and Observations Group); the SOG warriors were among the finest the country has ever produced.
LTC George “Speedy” Gaspard was one of the most well-known and respected officers from that generation. After serving with the Marine Corps in World War II, Gaspard joined the Army. He was an original, volunteering for the newly formed 10th Special Forces Group and attending Special Forces Class #1. He would run cross border operations in the Korean War but really made his mark during the war in Vietnam, working in Special Forces A-Camps as well as running some of the most secret operations across the border into North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
Gaspard became a “Distinguished Member of the Special Forces Regiment” in December 2010.
Shortly after I moved to SW Florida I got into contact with Chapter XXI of the SF Association. I was checking out their excellent website, saw a large segment dedicated to LTC Gaspard, and remembered a brief meeting I had with him years ago. More to that soon.
George Wallace Gaspard Jr. was born at Maxwell Field, Montgomery, Ala., on August 5, 1926. He was the son of the late George W. Gaspard of MN, and Annie Lou Bamberg of AL.
He served in the United States Marine Corps from 1944 to 1946 and fought in the final battle of World War II on the island of Okinawa with the 6th Marine Division. He first entered the U.S. Army on June 11, 1951.
In May 1952, Gaspard was a student in the first all-officer-class at the Ranger course. He then attended a special course at the Air Ground School located at Southern Pines, N.C. Afterward, he volunteered for the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne), which had just been organized at Fort Bragg, N.C.
His first assignment was as a team leader of the 18th SF Operational Detachment. In November 1952, he attended Special Forces Class #1. The fledgling Special Forces unit, much of it comprised of World War II vets from the OSS, was anxious to get involved in the Korean War and conduct missions similar to those conducted in occupied areas of Europe and the Pacific during the war.
The SF troops were put in an active intelligence operation that utilized Tactical Liaison Offices (TLO). Although they were initially manned only by anti-communist Koreans, the TLO would eventually conduct “line-crossing operations” which included using Chinese agents to gather intelligence on the enemy.
However, the Far East Command (FEC), assigned the SF troops as individual replacements rather than as 15-man A-Teams that SF was employing at the time using the OSS WWII Operational Group model.
In March 1953, then 1Lt. Gaspard was assigned to FEC/LD 8240AU FECOM. He commanded four enlisted men and 80 South Korean agents, who were dispatched behind enemy lines to gather intelligence on the North Koreans. Obviously the threat of double agents, something that would later haunt SOG operations in Vietnam, loomed. An excellent piece on this facet of the Korean War, written by former SF Officer and USASOC Historian Eugene Piasecki, “TLO: Line Crossers, Special Forces, and ‘the Forgotten War'” can be found here.
Gaspard was awarded the Silver Star and Bronze Star for actions in combat during June 11-12, 1953.
In October 1954, Gaspard joined the 77th SF Group (A) as a guerrilla warfare instructor with the Psychological Warfare School’s Special Forces Department. He was subsequently transferred to the 187th ARCT and honorably discharged in September 1957.
From 1960 to 1962, he served as a civilian mobilization designee with the Special Warfare department in the Pentagon. In April 1962, he was recalled to active duty and assigned to the 5th SF Group (A) at Fort Bragg, commanding Det A-13. In September, he opened a new Special Forces Camp in Kontum Province at Dak Pek, Vietnam, which remained the longest continuously active SF/ARVN Ranger camp until it was overrun in 1972. That would be the first of seven tours of duty in Vietnam for Gaspard.
During the early days of Vietnam, there was a general lack of accurate reporting by the press on the fighting. However, there were a handful of reporters who were willing to walk in the field and endure combat with the troops. One of those was Pulitzer Prize-winning author and reporter David Halberstam. He was a special correspondent with the New York Times and not a wire reporter, so, he had the time to visit the troops and share a much closer look at what was truly transpiring on the ground.
One of the first people that Halberstam met in Vietnam was Speedy Gaspard. The two developed a friendship and Gaspard became a source of what was really happening in the outlying areas of Vietnam where SF was working by, with, and through the locals. Halberstam was so taken by Gaspard that he modeled the lead character of his war novel “One Very Hot Day” after him.
Captain Gaspard returned to Fort Bragg in 1963 as adjutant and HHC commander of the newly formed 6th SF Group (A). In July 1965, he reported to AID Washington, DC, and subsequently to AID Saigon, where we was assigned as a provincial adviser in Quang Duc Province. He was instrumental in the very tricky negotiations to peacefully transfer FULRO personnel (Front Uni de Lutte des Races Opprimées — United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races) to the Army of South Vietnam.
FULRO was comprised of the indigenous people of the Central Highlands of Vietnam (Montagnards). They were hated by the lowland Vietnamese, both in South and North Vietnam and referred to as “moi” (savages). At the time, Vietnamese books characterized Montagnards as having excessive body hair and long tails. The Vietnamese rarely ventured into Montagnard regions until after the French colonial rule. Then, they built several profitable plantations to grow crops in and extract natural resources from those bountiful areas.
The simple mountain people were excellent hunters and trackers. They immediately bonded with the Green Berets assigned to stop the communist infiltration of South Vietnam and the Green Berets responded in kind. SF set up the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG), which trained and led the Montagnards in Unconventional Warfare against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese.
But the South Vietnamese government never trusted and hated the CIDG program because it feared the Montagnard people would want independence. (Such was their hatred for the Vietnamese that the Montagnards would continue to fight a guerrilla war against unified Vietnam for 20 years after the war ended. There were reports of genocide against the mountain people and over 200,000 died during the fight.)
Gaspard was promoted to major in 1966, and after completing his tour, reported to 1st SF Group (A), Okinawa. In October 1967, he returned to Vietnam and directed the MACVSOG “STRATA” program until September 1968.
The commanders in Vietnam, especially among the SOG personnel, were never satisfied with the intelligence collection activities conducted in North Vietnam. STRATA was conceived to aid the intelligence situation by focusing on short-term intelligence-gathering operations close to the border. The all-Vietnamese Short Term Roadwatch and Target Acquisition teams would report on activities across the border and then be recovered to be used again. Gaspard and the SOG Commander, Col. Jack Singlaub, briefed Gen. Westmoreland and Gen. Abrams on STRATA operations.
Once, a STRATA team became surrounded and required emergency extraction. Gaspard, riding a hydraulic penetrator, twice descended to remove a wounded agent. He was subsequently awarded the Air Force Distinguished Flying Cross for Heroism and the Purple Heart Medal for his actions.
Moles inside South Vietnam’s government and military, even in SOG, were a constant source of leaks to the North, even in SOG. Some of these leaks came to light much later. However, Gaspard would remedy that. As written in a fantastic piece by SOG team member John Stryker Meyer, Gaspard moved the operations jump-off location out of South Vietnam and the intelligence leaks began to dry up.
“The unique aspect of STRATA, which operated under OP34B, the teams launched out of Thailand, flying in Air Force helicopters. The Air Force performed all insertions and extractions without pre-mission reports to Saigon. During Gaspard’s tenure at STRATA 24 teams were inserted into North Vietnam on various intelligence-gathering missions. Only one and a half teams were lost during that period of time that involved inserting and successfully extracting more than 150 STRATA team members during that time.” “Again, a key part to our success was having our separate chain of command and not telling Saigon. We worked with the Air Force on a need-to-know basis.”
It wasn’t until many years later that Gaspard realized the extent of the communist infiltration of the south, right into SOG headquarters. Meyer describes in his piece the horror felt when someone close to the Americans, someone who had been vetted, was in fact a spy for the enemy.
“During a 1996 Hanoi television show, Maj. Gen. George “Speedy” Gaspard, was shocked when he saw an individual he knew as “Francois” receive Hanoi’s highest military honor for his years of service as a spy in SOG. Gaspard, who had several tours of duty in Vietnam and in SOG, knew “Francois” and was “shocked” when he saw the program. Francois had access to highly sensitive information while employed by the U.S. Author and SOG recon man John L. Plaster, has a photo of Gaspard standing with Francois in Saigon when Gaspard had no idea of the spy’s real role for the NVA. That photograph of Gaspard and Francois is on Page 463 of Plaster’s book: SOG: A Photo History of the Secret Wars, by Paladin Press Book. “There’s no question that he hurt SOG operations,” Gaspard said. “Again, how do you gauge it all? When you look at the success rate of STRATA teams by comparison, you can see why they succeeded. We were disconnected from Saigon and we didn’t have the NVA and Russians working against us.”
Gaspard returned to SOG in 1969 and was promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1971. He reported to 1st SF Group, Okinawa as the group executive officer, and later assumed command of the 1st Battalion. He retired in August 1973 after having served in three wars.
His earned multiple awards and decorations including the Silver Star Medal, Distinguished Flying Cross, Legion of Merit, Bronze Star Medal with V-device and five Oak Leaf Clusters, Air Medal with V-device and three Oak Leaf Clusters, Purple Heart Medal with one Oak Leaf Cluster, Combat Infantryman’s Badge with one Battle Star, Master Parachutist Badge, Pacific Theater Service Ribbon with one Campaign Star, Korea Service Ribbon with two campaign Stars, Vietnam Service Campaign Ribbon with 15 campaign Stars, 18 other service and foreign awards including the Vietnamese Gallantry Cross with Gold, Silver and Bronze stars, U.S. Navy Parachute Wings, Korea Master Parachutist Wings, Vietnamese Master Parachutist Wings, Thailand Master Parachutist Wings, and Cambodia Parachute Wings.
LTC Gaspard was a member of SFA, SOA, VFW, MOAA, American Legion, and the Sons of Confederacy.
From 2004 to 2017 Speedy served as president, vice president, or secretary of the Chapter XXI President of the Special Forces Association. (The Chapter provided a lot of Gaspard’s personal biography listed here.)
In 1985, Colonel Gaspard entered the South Carolina State Guard and in 1987 was appointed Chief of Staff with the rank of Brigadier General. In 1991, he was inducted into the Officer Candidate School Hall of Fame at Fort Benning, Georgia.
In the early fall of 1989, when I was a student in the SF Officer’s course at Ft. Bragg, one of our fellow students was a young man named George Gaspard, the son of Speedy. Young George, whom we knew as “Buck” was an outstanding officer and an even better man who was very popular among the officers in the class.
We learned that General Speedy Gaspard was going to address our class. He first showed us an outstanding slideshow of pics he took while conducting some hair-raising missions with SOG. They were better than anything we had seen in any book or magazine. He then addressed the class in his self-effacing style and said: “standing before you is an old, fat man, but in Vietnam, I was an old, fat captain… but I relied on and surrounded myself with outstanding SF NCOs who made me look brilliant.”
He encouraged the future A-Team commanders to trust in their team sergeants and NCOs and they’d never be steered wrong. SF NCOs, he said, were the true leaders of Special Forces and officers need to realize it, work together, and take care of NCOs. Of course, sitting in the rear of the classroom was General David Baratto commander of the Special Warfare Center and School (SWC), who cringed a bit at those pointed comments.
Sitting in the back, my buddy Wade Chapple and I were stealing glances at General Baratto who looked pained… In a typical Chapple bit of sarcasm, he leaned over and said to me, “I think his (Baratto’s) head is about to f***ing explode.”
After the day was over, our entire class, including many of our instructors, joined Speedy Gaspard at the “O-Club” for a cocktail or three. He regaled us with some cool stories about the SF and SOG guys he served with. It was a memorable night. When we left that night, he made everyone feel that we knew him well. It was an honor to have met him.
LTC George “Speedy” Gaspard passed away on January 30, 2018.
Ion Cristodulo, the political prisoner in charge of the casino restoration in the early 1950s, returning to the casino in Constanta in 1988.
BUCHAREST — When she was growing up in a small town in southern Romania, Laura Voicila was stigmatized by her father’s past.
In 1949, as the communists tightened their grip on the Eastern European country, Nicolaie Voicila, 17, was arrested and later sentenced to four years of hard labor for “plotting against the social order.”
His crime was joining a literary club at which members discussed the relatively new communist regime led by Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej and hoped it would disappear.
The high school student was one of the thousands the communists incarcerated in prisons and labor camps after World War II, often simply because they had fallen afoul of the communist regime.
There are no universally accepted figures, but a 2006 presidential commission established to study the communist dictatorship said more than 600,000 Romanians were sentenced for political crimes between 1945 and 1989. Thousands died from beatings, illness, exhaustion, cold, or lack of food or medicine.
The secret note with political prisoners’ names written in charcoal that was found inside the casino wall.
Early Days Of Communism
Andrei Muraru, a historian and adviser to Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, told RFE/RL that in the early 1950s some 100,000 prisoners were sentenced to hard labor on a project called the Black Sea Canal, a 70-kilometer waterway connecting the Danube to the Black Sea. It was also known as the “Canal of Death.”
Voicila toiled there, transporting heavy loads of rock before he was sent to work restoring a casino, an architectural monument to art nouveau in the nearby port of Constanta that had been bombed by the Germans during the war.
He didn’t talk much about those experiences after his release — actually being forbidden from talking about his imprisonment — and his fear of discussing those hard times lingered even after communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was ousted and executed during the 1989 Romanian Revolution.
But he did tell family members that political prisoners had scribbled notes and buried them in the walls of the casino.
“When I was growing up, Dad told us: When they renovate the casino, go there and find the documents,” Laura Voicila told RFE/RL.
“Under communism, we discussed things very quietly and never in public,” she said. “Dad listened to Radio Free Europe and I would say ‘Dad, what are they saying in Germany (RFE was based in Munich from 1950-1995)? I even remember the jingle [that went with the news].”
Nicolaie Voicila in the 1960s after his release from prison.
At school in the town of Gorgota, Laura had top grades, but her father’s past meant she suffered discrimination.
“My teacher told me: ‘You should be the class leader, but we can’t make you one,” she said. “[My father] told me to study and to leave the country if I wanted a chance [in life].”
Laura kept the story about the hidden notes in the back of her mind, until one day in May this year.
Her mother called saying she had seen on the news that restorers had unearthed a scrap of paper hidden in a wall of the casino that was signed by political prisoners.
“When my mom heard a note had been found, she said ‘You have to go and see it.’ She was moved to tears. It was a moment of moral reparation for her [after nearly 70 years]. People saw [the note] was there and it was real,” she told RFE/RL.
In mid-May, after Romania lifted a state of emergency imposed to stem the spread of the coronavirus, Laura went with Apollon Cristodulo — the son of Ion Cristodulo, an architect and political prisoner in charge of restoring the casino — to Constanta to see the note firsthand.
The note — a scrap of paper torn from a cement sack with the names of 17 political prisoners written in charcoal and dated December 31, 1951 — is not much in itself, were it not for the dire circumstances that it was created under and its historical importance.
“It was found rolled up in a ball by a stained-glass window restorer. He was looking for some old shards of glass in the wall and he came across the paper. He felt there was something [special] about it,” Apollon Cristodulo said on July 23.
“It was miraculous that this note was found,” he said. “I wrote about the [hidden note at the] casino many years ago, but nobody believed it; they thought it was just a story, a legend…. But now everything I’ve written has come true.”
Cristodulo’s father died in 1991 aged 66, his health damaged by the harsh years of detention.
“His heart, liver, and lungs were all shot. He died after his fourth heart attack,” Cristodulo told RFE/RL.
Laura Voicila and Apollon Cristodulo outside the casino in Constanta on May 19.
Romania’s Political Prisons
Muraru, the former director of the governmental Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes, secured the first ever prosecutions of former prison commanders in Romania.
Alexandru Visinescu, who was in charge of the notorious Ramnicu Sarat prison, was sentenced in 2016 to 20 years in jail for the deaths of 12 prisoners at the institution. One year later, Ioan Ficior received the same term for crimes against humanity for his role in the deaths of 103 prisoners at the Periprava labor camp. Both have since died serving their sentences.
Muraru said the fact that the detainees managed to write the note was remarkable.
“This is a rare piece of testimony because prisoners didn’t have access to paper or pencils, but…there was less supervision and the presence of ordinary workers and more humane figures who could provide them with something to write with, and that made it possible for this scrap of paper to be secreted away and put [in the wall],” he told RFE/RL.
“It took decades for the traumatic memory of communism to finally settle,” he added.
Alexandra Toader, the current director of the institute said: “After 70 years, we have material confirmation of what happened [at the casino].”
She said the Securitate communist secret police conducted excavations at the casino in 1986 and may have found other documents which were archived, something Cristodulo also thinks is likely.
“We have 26 kilometers of Securitate archives, a sea of documents; but I’m not sure whether they are digitized or documented,” Toader told RFE/RL.
The institute will hold an exhibition at the casino “dedicated exclusively to this episode,” she said. “Hopefully we can obtain objects they used, letters they wrote to their families, their tools.”
Researchers are investigating the estimated 100 prisoners who worked on the casino, tracking down biographical information to try to find out what happened to them.
“Most prisoners were there for the flimsiest of reasons and they were there for years on end regardless of their age,” Toader said. “It was a pretext to get rid of the so-called ‘enemies of the people.'”
Cristodulo told RFE/RL that the documents about the Black Sea Canal are still classified by the secret service.
“There were 100,000 people who carried out forced labor…the documents need to be declassified,” he said.
Architect Radu Cornescu, Apollon Cristodulo, and Laura Voicila (left to right) at the shell wall inside the casino where the secret political prisoner note was found.
Nicolaie Voicila, who died in 1999 at the age of 66, dreamed of becoming an architect but the communists wouldn’t let him complete his education. He managed to qualify as a sub-engineer and became the manager of a cement site, forever inspired by the work he had done with the architects on the casino.
But he was traumatized his entire life by his past as a prisoner.
“He wasn’t allowed to speak or write down what happened and he thought they’d come and get him, so he had a lack of trust,” Laura Voicila said. “He didn’t trust people. He thought maybe a neighbor would find out about his past and he’d be in trouble.”
He did tell us that when he worked on the canal, prisoners were beaten “and others [were forced] to eat feces,” she said.
“Prisoners had to transport rocks and they’d walk along a 30-40 centimeter piece of wood over the canal with a wheelbarrow full of rubble. And if a prisoner fell off, nobody bothered to rescue him,” Laura Voicila said.
“There are many human bones buried in that canal,” she said. Muraru added that it is known as “the Romanian Siberia.”
The collapse of communism failed to bring the changes that Nicolaie Voicila and many others had hoped for.
“He realized the old communists had come to power and he lost hope he’d ever see real democracy,” the 42-year-old Laura Voicila, who runs a family fruit and vegetable supply business, said.
“He saw miners attacking anti-government protesters in 1990 and he said: ‘You see? People are being beaten and killed. It’s still the same old people.'”
It’s a sentiment shared by Paul Andreescu, the head of the Association of Former Political Prisoners in Constanta.
Andreescu was a political prisoner for five years because he joined a youth organization that wanted to “free Romania from the Russians and their demands, such as making Russian a mandatory language at school and learning the history of the Soviet Union,” he told RFE/RL.
“We are free, but far from what we dreamed of and what we had hoped for in 1989.”
As head of the Constanta branch, Andreescu said: “It’s very important we have this proof [of the note from the casino], even if there are just a few names. They show the ugly past of the Romanian people, when people had to perform forced labor under all kinds of conditions.”
He added: “They are witnesses, even if they are buried in a wall.”
Toader says it’s important that Romania knows its past.
“This subject is still largely unknown in schools and books, and detainees didn’t speak of their detention; even their memoirs are truncated out of fear or an attempt to forget,” she said.
“This is very relevant for the young generation, as some are nostalgic about communism,” she said in an interview at her Bucharest office.
“Extremes can’t be allowed, neither left nor right. The rule of law must prevail.”
The famous Chief of the Oglala Lakota, Red Cloud, led the only successful native war against the United States. At the Fetterman Massacre, he inflicted the Army’s greatest defeat at the hands of any native leader until the Battle of Little Bighorn a decade later.
He was able to force out the Americans by uniting the many tribes in the Wyoming area and pursued the Army through his relentless attacks on Army-held forts and the reinforcements that were supposed to relieve the recipients of his seemingly endless attacks.
By 1868, the Army abandoned its plans for expanding in Red Cloud’s area of operations. The natives, for once, were victorious.
Red Cloud grew up fighting wars. He was born in what is today Nebraska, but like many other American Indian tribes, his Oglala Lakota were pushed westward by American expansion into the Great Plains. The expansion also pushed the tribes into conflict with one another, and Red Cloud became a warrior fighting neighboring Crow and Pawnee tribes.
In 1851, the U.S. and several tribes entered into the Treaty of Fort Laramie in Wyoming, which gave up any claims the United States had to the land held by nine American Indian nations. In return, the tribes guaranteed the safety of settlers making their way west along the Oregon Trail. The agreement also allowed the Army to construct forts in Indian territory in exchange for a 50-year annuity. Finally, it allowed the tribes to set their own land claims in the region.
It was broken immediately after being signed, when gold was discovered in Colorado. American miners set up homesteads and towns in Indian-controlled territories as the U.S. government did nothing to stop them. Discoveries of Gold in Montana is also what led to Red Cloud’s War and his subsequent victory over the Army.
With white settlers moving into native territories unchecked, bison numbers began to dwindle and native hunters were forced to expand their hunting grounds, even into the lands held by other tribes. The tribes began fighting over hunting grounds and the Lakota were winning. The Lakota and other tribes were also harassing settlers on the Bozeman Trail into Montana on their way to look for that gold.
The U.S. Army sent a punitive expedition after the natives but failed to win a decisive battle, so another conference was held at Fort Laramie, but when Red Cloud arrived, he saw 1,300 troops from the 18th Infantry Regiment and accused the Army of trying to bully them out of their treaty. He and a number of other leaders left without settling any disputes. The Army set out to subdue Red Cloud and the restless warriors.
It was a bad situation from the start for the soldiers. They were not equipped to fight a mobile war against Red Cloud. They carried obsolete weapons and many were infantry, not cavalry – and they were outnumbered on the Indians’ home turf.
As the Army moved northward, they built a series of forts, and stopped for the winter in Montana at Fort C.F. Smith, which they built. The natives struck first, hitting military civilian wagon trains along the Bozeman Trail, which soon scared any settlers from using the trail. Then 500 warriors hit the series of forts along the trail, stealing cattle and killing settlers.
Red Cloud’s attacks soon became a constant harassment to the soldiers, so the Army sent in a cadre of Civil War veterans. That might have seemed like a good idea, but while they were hardened veterans, they had no experience in the kind of fighting happening on the plains.
One of those veterans was Capt. William J. Fetterman, who led a party to relieve a wagon train under attack by the Lakota in December 1866. Fetterman led a team of 81 soldiers out into the plains and immediately came across Crazy Horse and a handful of warriors along Lodge Trail Ridge. Despite being warned not to pursue the enemy beyond the ridge, Fetterman went after them anyway.
Coming over the ridge and into the valley below, Fetterman and the 81 troops found a trap of at least 1,000 Oglala and Cheyenne warriors, who promptly massacred them. There could be no help from the fort, as Fetterman was warned.
The tribes continued harassing the forts, wagons, and civilians until the U.S. Army sued for peace. They needed the troops along the Bozeman Trail to help protect the Transcontinental Railroad. Not having the soldiers necessary to subdue the natives and protect the rails, they called Red Cloud for talks at Fort Laramie.
Red Cloud demanded the full withdrawal of the Army from the forts along the trail as a precondition to open talks, and the Army complied. When they did, the natives burned the forts. After two years of fighting, the U.S. and the natives signed the Treaty of Fort Laramie of 1868. It created the Great Sioux Reservation and prevented white settlers from occupying any portion of the Powder River area. Anyone crossing the territory had to get permission from the tribes.
After World War II, the Allied powers divided Germany, giving the eastern part of the country to the Soviet Union and the Western part to the United States, Britain, and France. The capital city of Berlin was also divided, but in 1948, the Soviets established a blockade to ensure Germany could not reunify and rise to invade them again.
Refusing to withdraw, the Allies began to supply their sectors of Berlin with food, fuel, and necessities in Operation Vittles — perhaps best known as the Berlin Airlift.
True to his word, Halvorsen collected candy rations from his fellow pilots and, on his next mission to Tempelhof, he wiggled the wings of his C-54 Skymaster and instructed his Flight Engineer to drop three parcels of the candy out the flight deck. They floated to the ground in handmade parachutes made of white handkerchiefs and, when he checked on the children later, three handkerchiefs waved back.
“Uncle Wiggly Wings” was born.
Once newspapers learned about Halvorsen’s “Operation Little Vittles,” pilots were flooded with candy donations from the United States. A humanitarian mission launched — and it continued well after Halvorsen returned home.
Halvorsen’s gesture — and the humanitarian mission that followed — built a bridge of healing between the American people and war-torn Germany, which paved the way for the friendship that would follow in the years to come.
Described as “the bravest man you’ve never heard of,” Captain Humbert Roque Versace’s story is one that is not as well known as it should be. So allow us to remedy that by discussing how he spent two years basically being a huge pain in the ass for his captors in a Vietnamese POW camp — so much so that he managed to become the first person in the U.S. Army to earn a Medal of Honor for his conduct as a prisoner of war.
Born in 1937 in Honolulu, Hawaii, Versace was the son of decorated army colonel, Humbert Joseph Versace, and famed author, editor, and pilot Tere Rios, who, among other things, wrote The Fifteenth Pelican, which would inspire popular 1960s TV show The Flying Nun.
The oldest of five children, “Rocky” as he was known was a smart and headstrong child who would later be described by his brother, Steve, as being “infuriatingly opinionated” and “If he knew he was right, he was absolutely atrocious…” — a trait that played a role in his earning a Medal of Honor.
Like his father before him, Versace joined the army, attending West Point Academy in 1959 and graduating with honors. Over the next two years Versace received training as both an Army Ranger and a parachutist, eventually rising to the rank of Captain during a tour in North Korea as a tank platoon leader. In 1962, the newly minted Captain Versace was assigned to serve in a mostly ceremonial role with the distinguished Old Guard at Fort Meyer. Soon enough, however, he volunteered to serve in Vietnam.
Humbert Roque Versace.
Prior to being shipped off to Vietnam, Versace received yet more training, this time to become an Intelligence Officer. As part of his training, he received a crash course in Vietnamese, a language he was fluent in by the time his tour of duty began in May of 1962. This, combined with Versace’s fluency in French, made him an invaluable asset to the Army and incredibly popular with the South Vietnamese forces and civilians of the Mekong Delta.
His fluency in Vietnamese was important to Versace as his dream was to eventually become a Catholic priest and missionary to the people of South Vietnam. Thus, Versace spent much of his free time as a soldier there volunteering at local orphanages, assisting townspeople and securing vital and not-so-vital supplies to make life a little easier for the locals. In regards to the latter, in addition to securing food and building materials, Versace also continually wrote letters to schools in the United States asking for toys and learning materials for the children of the villages he visited.
A year later, with his tour of duty coming to an end, Versace applied to stay in Vietnam for another 6 months despite receiving news that his application to seminary had been accepted. As it would later emerge, Versace had decided that he still wanted to be a priest but his decision to embark on a second tour of duty was born out of an earnest desire to continue helping the orphans he’d become so attached to during his time in the country.
Two weeks before this second tour was set to end, Versace volunteered for a highly dangerous mission to assist South Vietnamese troops take down a North Vietnamese command post located deep in the U Minh Forest.
During the mission Versace and his fellow soldiers were ambushed and overrun by Viet Cong forces. Hopelessly outnumbered, he called for a tactical retreat, along with First Leiutenant Nick Rowe and Sergeant First Class Dan Pitzer, covering the exit of South Vietnamese soldiers with sustained rifle fire as a hail of bullets tore overhead. During the ensuing firefight, Versace was hit in the back and legs by bullets and shrapnel as he stood, completely exposed to the hellstorm raging around him firing his weapon into jungle.
Running low on bullets, Versace charged the enemy in an apparent effort to single-handedly beat them all to death with the butt of his rifle. During his charge, he was injured once more, falling to the ground and being quickly set upon and beaten by the enemy forces.
After being physically overpowered, Versace, along with Pitzer and Rowe, were stripped of their weapons and boots, before all three were marched barefoot into the jungle towards a POW camp…. Which is when Versace got mad.
Remembering Captain HR ‘Rocky’ Versace on Memorial Day 2016
For the next two years Versace made life for his captors hell as they tried and failed to do the same to him. Strikingly handsome with a tall, imposing frame and a magnetic personality, Versace became the pseudo-leader of his fellow POWs. Frequently tortured and interrogated, he refused to give them any information and relentlessly badgered his captors about their treatment of his friends and comrades, citing articles from the Geneva Convention and using his time in isolation to think up ever more creative insults.
Tired of his antics, in an effort to keep him away from other POWs, Versace was eventually locked inside of a bamboo cage away from everyone else, which didn’t stop him from boosting the morale of everyone around him by cheerily singing pop songs. When the Viet Cong locked Versace in an isolation cage even further away from the rest of the POWs, he just sang louder. When they began gagging him so that he couldn’t speak or sing, he started leaving messages of support in the toilet.
Not content to just sit around singing, during his imprisonment, Versace escaped four times, each time being captured not long after. In the first instance, he was so severely injured at the time that he couldn’t walk, but instead crawled away from the camp in agonizing pain through marshland. As you might imagine, it didn’t take the Viet Cong very long to locate him once they’d discovered he’d managed to escape.
Each time he was recaptured, Versace was noted as telling his captors that he’d do it again the first change he got, prompting them to redouble their efforts to break him. As you can probably guess by now, these efforts failed miserably.
At first the Viet Cong tried “re-educating” Versace, attempting to brainwash him with political propaganda. Versace reportedly spent much of his time during these sessions loudly arguing with his indoctrinators.
Along with inspiring his fellow POWs, this saw to it that the bulk of his captor’s frustrations and anger were directed towards him, something his fellow POWs were also reportedly very grateful for. As noted by President George Bush some four decades late, “By focusing his captors’ anger on him, he made life a measure more tolerable for his fellow prisoners, who looked to him as a role model of principled resistance.”
Humbert Versace’s memorial plaque outside MacArthur Barracks at West Point.
In addition to inspiring POWs, Versace’s tenacity inspired the people of Vietnam; when the Viet Cong tried to parade a beaten and bloodied Versace through local villages, he’d offer words of encouragement in Vietnamese to those gathered. This was much to the annoyance of the Viet Cong who’d warned against such insubordination by threatening to viciously beat him within an inch of his life if he did so.
Frustrated with their inability to break this man, the Viet Cong eventually made the decision to execute Versace. When he was informed of this, he reportedly responded by singing God Bless America for 5 hours straight the night before his execution was to take place. This song was the last thing any of his fellow prisoners ever heard from Versace.
Following through on their threat, Rocky Versace was executed on Sep. 26, 1965. His body was never recovered, but a headstone was placed above an empty grave in Arlington National Cemetery.
For his conduct as a POW, initially Versace only received a silver star, the Army’s third highest award. This was something his fellow soldiers didn’t feel reflected the full extent of his actions and sacrifice while a POW, resulting in a concerted effort from a “hodgepodge group of soldiers and civilians” aware of the full details of what Versace endured to see him awarded America’s highest military honor.
In 2002, this request was finally fulfilled, with one of Versace’s brothers, Dr. Stephen Versace, accepting the medal from then President George Bush. In his speech, Bush noted:
In his defiance and later his death, he set an example of extraordinary dedication that changed the lives of his fellow soldiers who saw it firsthand. His story echoes across the years, reminding us of liberty’s high price and of the noble passion that caused one good man to pay that price in full.
In addition to being the first American POW to earn a Medal of Honor for his conduct during his time as a prisoner, Versace is an inductee in the Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes as well as a member of the Ranger Hall of Fame.
Said his former fellow prisoner Sergeant Dan Pitzer of the man himself,
Rocky walked his own path… for that guy, duty, honor, country was a way of life. He was the finest example of an officer I have known… Once, Rocky told our captors they might as well kill him then and there if the price of his life was getting more from him than name, rank, and serial number… He got a lot of pressure and torture, but he held his path… He was brutally murdered because of it… I’m satisfied he would have it no other way…. [He] valued that one moment of honor more than he would a lifetime of compromises.
This article originally appeared on Today I Found Out. Follow @TodayIFoundOut on Twitter.
The Revolutionary War ended long before photography was a refined process, but the gap between the two historic events was still enough to allow some of America’s true patriots – in the literal sense of the word – to sit for a photo. The Revolution was over by 1783, and the earliest surviving photo dates back to 1826, a 43-year difference. Since the average life span of a man at that time was around 40 years, it’s safe to say these guys barely made it.
Except the photographer didn’t get around to doing it until the middle of the Civil War in 1864 – 83 years after Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown.
(Rev. Elias Hillard)
Downing was 102 when Hillard interviewed him. He enlisted in July 1780 in New Hampshire and served under General Benedict Arnold at the Battle of Saratoga, saying Arnold was a fighting general, one who treated his soldiers well, and as brave a man as ever lived.
He lamented the fact that generals in the Civil War weren’t as gentlemanly as they were in his time.
(Rev. Elias Hillard)
Rev. Daniel Waldo
Waldo was a Connecticut colonist drafted at age 16 in 1778 and captured by the English in 1779. Confined in a New York prison, he was later released in exchange for captured British soldiers. He also lived to be more than 100 years old.
(Rev. Elias Hillard)
At 105, Cook was the oldest surviving veteran of the war. He joined the Continental Army in 1781, only convincing the recruiter because he volunteered to serve for the duration of the war. Cook was in the Army at Brandywine and at Yorktown, under the command of Washington, Lafayette, and Rochambeau. He remembered Washington ordered his men not to laugh at the British after the surrender, because surrender was bad enough.
(Rev. Elias Hillard)
Milliner was a Quebec native who not only served as drummer boy at the Battles of White Plains, Brandywine, Monmouth, and Yorktown, he was also on the crew of the USS Constitution back when the ship was the latest technology in naval warfare. He remembered that General Washington once patted him on the head and referred to Milliner as “his boy.”
A native of Maine who enlisted at age 15, Hutchings served in coastal defense batteries along the Maine coast. He was taken prisoner at the Siege of Castine, the only action he saw in the entire war. The British released him because of his young age. He died in 1866, at the home he lived in for almost 100 years.
(Rev. Elias Hillard)
Link was from Hagerstown, Maryland and enlisted in the Pennsylvania militia on three separate occasions. At 16, he was part of a unit whose job was to defend the Western Frontier – back when that frontier was still in Pennsylvania. The hard drinking, hard working farmer lived to the ripe old age of 104, dying shortly after his photo with Hillard.